The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Cleaning Collections

 

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Today we find out more about what Collections and Exhibitions trainee Nicole has been up to at the Norfolk Collections Centre.

The Deep Clean at the Norfolk Collections Centre is an early highlight on the Teaching Museum Traineeship calendar. It opens up the opportunity to delve deep into the helm of the Norfolk Museum Service’s Aladdin’s Cave of collections. Although each museum within the service has its own on-site archives, this is the mother ship of them all. Based in the grounds of the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, the Collections Centre consist of two large warehouses, broken down into aisles of high shelving lined with history. From Mammoth Tusks to Snap Dragons, Colman’s Mustard Presses to intricately carved wooden mantelpieces, each corner turned or aisle passed catches your eye with objects of bait that tempt your curiosity with what could turn into hours exploration. Alas, there is a job to do, and a big one. Although collection care is a continual process, the annual deep clean offers the service an opportunity to thoroughly assess and maintain the condition of objects on mass. It calls upon teams of conservators, collections managers, volunteers, and of course trainees, to grab small brushes in one hand, low powered vacuum cleaners in the other, and clean shelves object by object.

It tempts you, when you are presented with a dusty piece of wooden furniture, to grab the furniture polish and shine away. The same may be said, when facing a large wooden canoe, to get a sponge and soapy water, roll up your sleeves and rub it down. ‘Sacrilege!’ the conservators would cry, and come after you with pitchforks (of which there are surely many at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum, so it’s probably best to stick to the system). No cleaning products are used, nor water unless in very small amounts and applied by a lightly dampened cotton bud. Objects are generally cleaned using a fresh paint brush, with masking tape fastened around the metal which joins the bristles to the handle as to avoid inducing scratches. Brushing is done in short flicking motions, as any rubbing may cause dirt to ingrain itself further into the object. It reminds me of dentistry, where by a latex gloved dentist removes debris from teeth using a tool in one hand, a suction pipe extracting it in the other. Gloves on, low suction vacuum cleaners at the ready, the dirt is dislodged with the brush, the vacuum cleaner removing it entirely. To reduce damage (especially when dealing with fabric conservation) the end of the vacuum pipe is covered in a fine gauze to prevent any elements of the object getting sucked up.

It is a two week process, of which I am assigned two days away from my usual museum site, the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. On the first day, I am teamed with Collections Management trainee Laura, whose training is based upon the collections between the Norfolk Collections Centre, and Strangers Hall Museum (Norwich). Together, we tackle a single shelf over the course of the day, a testament to the time consuming process of careful cleaning and conservation. I begin with two mannequin heads, with long eyelashes and removable ‘bob’ wigs. They smile charmingly as they oversee the careful vacuuming of their wavy locks, a section of gauze laid flat over the entire wig to prevent any hair loss. Then there is a wooden crib, a corner table, and a wicker linen basket. If you have ever attempted to dust wicker, you will sympathise with the idea of cleaning such an object. However, there is a sense of the therapeutic in the slow rhythm of the overall process, wrapped in one’s own little bubble amongst a hive of activity. A forklift truck bustles around retrieving cumbersome objects and crates from the lines of shelving. Outside, trainee Ruth gears up in a full Tyvek suit and mask. She cleans spots of mold off a retro orange and brown patterned sofa set, which splits the team with a Marmite dilemma of love and hate.

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Trainee Ruth removing mold

A piano stool with a hinged seat reveals an internal compartment containing old sheet music. Within museums, every object acquired is done so through a process called Accessioning. This is a process of documentation where the object is correctly logged into the collection and recorded upon a digital achieve database. The object is given an Accession Number, an official record number which is discreetly and reversibly marked onto the object using pencil or ink. The piano stool has several different components, and we mark each with the object’s overall Accession Number so that they could be identified if separated from the set.

 

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A wooden table prepared for freezing

The Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum sits out in the glorious Norfolk countryside, a perk for any visitor to the museum site and grounds. However, it is also a perk for creepy crawlies who like to munch on wood, as the Collections Centre offers a gourmet buffet of aged wooden furniture to choose from. Careful pest management is therefore key and continual. A pram and a table on which we work show signs of Woodworm, tiny burrow holes giving them away. Wood darkens with time, and so when old wood is freshly eaten it will appear lighter in colour inside the hole. An object will still bare traces of old infestations, however due to the ageing and possible accumulation of dust or debris, these holes will appear darker. If in doubt, freeze it out! Freezing is the adopted process of eradication, a freezer the size of a small room creating a temperature controlled chamber for two weeks per freeze. If correctly wrapped, a domestic freezer could be used for household pest removal, however is less easy to control. At the Collections Centre, objects are prepared first by filling any ‘void’ space with tissue paper wadding. This reduces spaces in which condensation can form during the defrost. They are then wrapped in thick plastic sheeting, and carefully shelved within the freezer chamber. After two weeks, the freezer is left to fully return to room temperature before any objects are removed, as when frozen they can become brittle and difficult to transport.

On week two the whole team is assigned a collection of wooden printing blocks: carved alphabet letters set into blocks, once used for newspaper or poster printing. We spend the whole day in the speckled sunshine of the Collections Centre forecourt, getting lost in the dusting and hoovering of individual wooden letters, spaces, and punctuation. Slow but satisfying, it is far from an average office day. Then again, there are no average office days upon the traineeship, and the next day I return to the Tide and Tide Museum and watch loans from Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum being installed into the new exhibition, Drawn to the Coast.

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Wooden Printing Blocks

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Talking Textiles; Bloomin’ Lovely!

 

My traineeship within the Costume and Textiles department has been a whirlwind of responsibilities thus far. One of the most enjoyable duties is helping out with our monthly Talking Textiles event, where members of the public are able to experience an informative and hands-on lecture within our study room. Topics range from the broad (such as Check Out Our Chintz!, which explored Chintz and other textiles inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese arts) to the rather esoteric (for Up Close and Personal, we examined the work of John Craske and convalescence via needlework). Making the collections accessible and meaningful to the public is a passion of mine, and seeing our knowledge passed on in such a tangible way is a delight. The sessions are quite informal, and any questions the visitors may have often drive the direction of the talk, such that the morning and afternoon sessions can vary quite a bit despite covering the same topic!

Preparations for the event have to begin a few days prior; as we are lucky enough to have such an extensive collection (over 32,000), selecting and retrieving the items to be shown as visual aids is a hard task, but one that allows me to familiarise myself with our collections and the various store layouts. On the day, I assist with setting the room up, greet and seat our visitors, assist our curator during the talk, and oversee any elements of handling that the public may engage with. Finally, after much cooing and animated discussion, everything needs to be carefully packaged away and returned to it’s rightful place within our archives.

Our most recent Talking Textiles event was Bloomin’ Lovely! which covered the huge history of floral motifs in textiles. The images accompanying this post are just some of the unique and sumptuous items that we had the pleasure of sharing with our audience- ranging from the 1670s to the 1970s, silks to woolens. Talking Textiles is taking a break over the summer, but shall resume in October. Keep an eye out for what we have planned when the latest Norwich Castle Museum What’s On brochure is released.

 

 

 

 


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Migration: my story

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see what Phoebe Wingate, trainee with the learning team at the Time and Tide museum, has been up to.

Before writing my own, I spent some time reading the blogs by other museum trainees. Despite the different traineeships, several common themes emerged – not least of all the huge variety within each role and the enthusiasm with which everyone has embarked on the programme. Another theme that stood out was the reference to the speed at which things happen. So it may come as no surprise that I start with the same opening gambit – what a whirlwind it has been since I started seven months ago. It is hard work and full-on yet I still feel incredibly lucky; I get to be involved in amazing projects and gain experience with a fantastic team.

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Pocketwatch belonging to second class passenger on the Titanic,  Robert Douglas Norman. On loan from the National Maritime museum.

One such experience has been working on Endeavour; part of the Collection Stories project led by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth where I am based is a project partner and has been loaned a pocket watch that belonged to Robert Douglas Norman, a second class passenger on the Titanic who died when the ship sank. The Endeavour project focuses on using this poignant object to explore ways of recording and sharing migration stories; when I started my role in April 2017 my predecessor, Holly Morrison, had planned and delivered a number of activities and events, engaging different audiences on this theme.

Next up in the calendar was Migration – Collection stories, hosted by Great Yarmouth library. This event featured a handling session, crafts, as well as a human library where volunteers engaged visitors in a twitter-like conversation on the theme of migration. Working alongside Holly, I was able to pick up lots of tips and gain good experience in event organising within the museum sector.

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A crafty approach to capturing migration stories.

Building on this was Global Great Yarmouth (it took almost as much time to come up with the name as to plan, organise and deliver) – an event to celebrate the many cultures represented in Great Yarmouth. It was about this time that Holly-shaped hole developed in the office when she was offered a job at the Fitz William in Cambridge. In a slight daze I set to work researching objects linked to migration from our collection, coordinating staff and volunteers as well as developing craft activities.

One of the most rewarding elements was working with a group of students from East Coast College (English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL). The students selected several objects from our collection that they would highlight by running tours.  Understandably anxious about their performance, working with these students was a great reminder that I wasn’t the only person who needed to overcome nerves.

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We all join in: Vandana teams up with the Afro Lusa dance group – and others – to show a traditional Indian dance.

Radio interviews done, sessions planned and staff booked, there was nothing for it but to stand and deliver – event day was upon me.  And so with the back drop of a (mostly) blue sky, the Time & Tide museum courtyard looked a riot of colours swirling to music from India, Greece and Portugal; stories were told about the first people to migrate; the ESOL students ran fantastic tours and I breathed a tiny sigh of relief…success.


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Sharing a Passion: Ted Ellis

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see John Holdaway, trainee with the Natural History section.

Back in the summer of 2016, I was kindly asked by Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, to present a talk as part of their excellent Friday talks programme. I was given the date of 3rd March 2017, which at the time seemed a long way off, but as I write this, it’s only a few weeks away!

Deciding on a subject to talk about was a hard choice. Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the privilege to work with a collection that holds over a million objects, ranging in ages from decades to well over 100 million years old. But narrowing it down to one single object to talk about for 60 minutes felt a hugely daunting task. After pondering on choices for a while, I stumbled upon the idea of not actually presenting a talk on an object, but instead, on a person. And a hugely influential figure, personality and visionary within the history of the Natural History department here at Norfolk Museums Service, was Ted Ellis.

Ted was employed by Norwich Castle Museum as ‘Natural History Assistant’ in 1928 at the age of 19, and presented at his interview a collection of his own ‘Nature Notebooks’ that he had kept from a young age. These had captured, in amazing detail, what he had observed on his many nature walks around Great Yarmouth and many other parts of Norfolk. We are very lucky to have many of these notebooks in the collection. Some of the colourful drawings of birds, wildlife and botany are truly wonderful, and show a young man with a real passion for nature, doing what he loved.

Ted Ellis in is natural habitat

Ted Ellis in his natural habitat

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

One of Ted’s many ‘Nature Notebooks’

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

Amazing detail of Ted’s ‘Nature Notebooks’

In time, Ted became ‘Keeper of Natural History’, and one of his many lasting legacies here at Norwich Castle Museum, is of course, the ‘Ted Ellis Norfolk Room’. In America during the 1930s, old-style cases which contained row-upon-row of taxidermy were starting to be replaced by a new type of 3D vista, where nature that would usually occur together in the wild, was depicted in a natural-looking setting. Ted was the driving force behind designing and building Norwich Castle’s very-own set of dioramas, regarded at the time as the best in the world, and still well-respected to this day due to their attention to detail and accuracy.

Each scene depicts a different part of Norfolk, and contains birds, botany and landscapes unique to that area. Being a Breckland boy living in Norwich, it always warms my heart seeing the Stone Curlews, meres, gorse, sandy heaths, endless skies, and the belts of twisted Scots Pines that the Breckland landscape is so famous for.

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

 

A young Ted Ellis, and me

A young Ted Ellis, and me

Although Ted entered the professional museum world under the instruction and guidance of late Victorian and Edwardian curators, he was part of the new breed of museum professionals, tasked with evolving the museum world from their Victorian ‘curiosity’ obsessions, towards museums representing their local communities.

In this way, I can relate this to my own introduction into the world of museums. I spent 15 years working in the logistics sector, a role I never really enjoyed. I’d always had a passion for history and heritage, and to take the big jump into the museum world was never money or job-security motivated, it was purely down to wanting to share my passion with as many people as I could, and to make new memories, just as my trips to museums as a child did for me. Obviously, the heritage sector is ever changing, and through my traineeship, I have been able to draw on the experience and knowledge on some of the most forward-thinking and experienced characters within the sector. It is nearly time for me to push on with what I have learnt and to make my own mark, just as Ted Ellis did during his time at the museum. He learnt from the best at the time, and used that to springboard his own ideas. A testament to his passion and skill is that his work, including the dioramas, are still admired over 80 years since their creation.

Ted was a man who wanted to share his passion with as many people as possible, and I’ve also been able to do that over the last 10 months. And long may it continue, wherever my next chapter may take me.

If you’d like to hear more about Ted’s time at Norwich Castle Museum, see details about my talk through this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/327175364300893/?active_tab=about


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Preparing a Cockle Rake for the Freezer… #OnlyInMuseums

Each month we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees. Today we see Imy Clarke, Curatorial trainee at Ancient House and Lynn Museum.

Six months into the traineeship and it’s hard to believe how much I have learnt! Time has flown by and we’ve hit the halfway point (eek)! With the months whizzing on I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on a few of the best and most challenging things I’ve done over the first half of my year as Curatorial Teaching Museum Trainee.

Dressing up + being in costume likes to work it's way into trainee life! Myself and fellow trainees enjoying the hat selection at Ancient House.

Myself and fellow trainees enjoying the hat selection at Ancient House!

Having had no prior experience in the museum industry, the first few months were a steep learning curve! I was flung straight into helping with all sorts of exciting activities and projects whilst getting to know my new colleagues and places of work.

One of the first major projects I was lucky enough to be involved with was East Meets West, a three-day international conference exploring the relationship between obsidian and flint. ‘What is obsidian?’ I hear you ask… or maybe that was just me back in May! – Why it’s a ruddy-exciting black volcanic rock used to make tools during the Neolithic period, that’s what! East Meets West included an academic conference, a family fun day and a schools day, so as you can imagine the project took lots of coordinating! It also presented me with numerous challenges. One particularly memorable example being an interview with Radio Suffolk, which is sadly no longer available online for me to share with you (phew!).

Obsidian knapping workshop at East Meets West Family Fun Day.

Obsidian knapping workshop at East Meets West Family Fun Day.

One of my favourite roles at both Lynn Museum and Ancient House is working with our volunteer teams. I quickly learnt when starting the traineeship, that many museums simply could not continue if it wasn’t for the hard work of their dedicated volunteers. At Lynn Museum I have had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people, sorting through boxes of fascinating museum objects! It has been amazing to work behind the scenes, handling and caring for such interesting objects. During my first session at the store I ended up preparing a cockle rake for the freezer as it was showing signs of pest infestation… something I can’t say I had ever seen myself doing.

…And so began the weird and wonderful list of activities where I found myself saying ‘only in museums!’ (Regretfully I have no photo evidence of said cockle rake… I will leave your minds to ponder…)

Any excuse to don a tyvek suit! Conservation cleaning at Gressenhall collections store.

Over the last few months I have thoroughly enjoyed co-curating Little Lives: Snapshots of Childhood 1800 to the Present Day with the wonderful Lynn Museum team! Working on this exhibition has given me invaluable experience in selecting and preparing objects, writing text panels, curating displays and more! Using childhood objects from the museum collections alongside photographs and paintings, Little Lives explores the changing experiences of childhood across the last two centuries. Until working on Little Lives I had no idea of the processes and forward planning involved in creating a museum exhibition.

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Installing mourning brooches for Little Lives exhibition.

My day-to-day role on the traineeship has been and continues to be incredibly varied. One moment I’ll be creating museum trails or co-curating an online exhibition (watch this space) and the next I’ll be dressed up in 1920s costume or as a Tudor lady at an outreach event! I have been given so many opportunities during my first six months and I can’t thank the supportive teams I work with enough!

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Strike a pose! Dayna and Myself dressed in 1920s costume for event at Lynn Museum.

I am looking forward to seeing what my remaining few months will hold and I’m sure that when it comes to writing my next blog entry I will have plenty more of those #OnlyInMuseum moments to share!

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A tour around the costume and textiles stores. Me in replica crinoline.